, Newburyport, MA

November 29, 2013

McClure: Put hold on 'pot farms'

Amesbury councilor wants time to explore issue

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — In a last-ditch effort to slow the prospective entry of medical marijuana into Amesbury, Councilor Donna McClure said she intends to propose a moratorium on medical marijuana development when the City Council is seated for its next term in January.

If approved, the moratorium would temporarily prohibit the use of land or structures in Amesbury for medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivation facilities. The city could then use that time to study the issue and implement policies that would allow for a smoother integration of medical marijuana into the community.

The move comes in response to the recent revelation that multiple organizations are vying to open medical marijuana cultivation facilities in Amesbury, and McClure argued that there hasn’t been a sufficient and public discussion regarding medical marijuana.

She added that she’s still personally undecided about medical marijuana, but believes Amesbury needs to take the time to examine the issue before facilities start opening in town.

There are currently two organizations seeking licenses from the Department of Public Health to open medical marijuana businesses in Amesbury. Alternative Therapies Group Inc. is reportedly looking at a property on South Hunt Road, and Green Heart Health and Pharmaceuticals is reportedly interested in the property at 10 Industrial Way.

Both organizations have indicated that they only plan to cultivate marijuana in Amesbury and would open dispensaries elsewhere, but McClure said that according to the DPH, there is no legal distinction between medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers and there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t start dispensing down the road.

“I was feeling OK about cultivation but dead against dispensaries,” McClure said. “But now that I know they could both come, I’m not so sure.”

While McClure said she is hopeful about the willingness of other councilors to support the proposal, time won’t be on her side.

Because the current City Council’s term ends in December, McClure cannot officially propose the moratorium until the new council is officially seated in January. Once that happens, she will have to make the proposal as a first reading, which will then be forwarded to committee before being brought to a vote at the following council meeting.

Unless a special meeting is called, the earliest a vote on the moratorium could be taken is in February, by which point the DPH will have already issued its medical marijuana licenses.

If either ATG or GHHP were awarded a license in late January, they would be free to begin the process of setting up shop in Amesbury right away and would likely be grandfathered in if a moratorium were approved after the fact.

The renewed discussion on medical marijuana in Amesbury was sparked earlier this month when Council President Anne Ferguson proposed a resolution of non-opposition in support of ATG’s Phase II application for a DPH medical marijuana license. The proposal surprised many of the councilors, who said they had no idea that medical marijuana companies were actively trying to move in.

The subject has been at the forefront of discussion in many other communities for months, however, and numerous local communities have already implemented moratoriums, including Salisbury and Newbury.

Moratoriums can’t be indefinite and must follow a timeframe consistent with the proposed planning process. The attorney general’s office has approved moratoriums lasting between 12 to 18 months, but it has struck down moratoriums longer than that.

The city also cannot ban medical marijuana facilities entirely. Several communities — notably Wakefield — tried to pass outright bans on medical marijuana, but those bans were overturned by the attorney general’s office. The argument was that if any one town could ban medical marijuana, then all of them could, which would defeat the purpose of the law.

McClure acknowledged that the idea of proposing a medical marijuana moratorium back in the spring or the summer never occurred to her, and she always presumed the city would have a chance to discuss the issue before it was forced under the gun.

“I didn’t think it would ever come to town without an open discussion,” McClure said.